On March 16 President Emmanuel Macron, the youngest head of state in French history since Napoleon, appeared on prime-time television to address the nation. He declared a state of national emergency and said, six times, that France was “at war” against the coronavirus. Beginning at noon the following day, people could leave their homes only for urgent needs—to buy food, for medical appointments, to go to work if they couldn’t work remotely—and only with a permission slip. Just days before, France had closed its schools, restaurants, and cafés. Its external borders and the borders of the other twenty-five countries in Europe’s Schengen Zone of visa-free travel also snapped shut. Flights between Paris and the United States dropped to barely more than one a day. For eight weeks, the streets of Paris were empty of traffic and silent, the sidewalks desolate, all but essential food stores closed. Beneath the damaged, scaffold-clad hull of Notre-Dame, the waters of the Seine were calm and free of barges, a green lake.
When the lockdown—le confinement—finally began to lift on May 11, giving way to a tenuous period of reopening—le déconfinement—Paris looked the same. And yet it wasn’t. Over the course of that long, strange April—during which France recorded nearly 20,000 Covid-19 deaths—something had shifted. The coronavirus has caused a reckoning here, one of the most profound the country has undergone since World War II. It was already in the throes of upheaval when the virus hit, after the Yellow Vest street protests and strikes against Macron’s efforts to cut back state services and restructure pensions. The situation in France today is born of a combustive collision between theory and practice, ideal and real, that stems largely from the country’s persistent sense of itself as an exemplary nation, which may or may not withstand the test of reality.
France has emerged from the first wave of the pandemic with its self-confidence deeply rattled, its GDP projected to drop more than 10 percent this year, unemployment hovering around 10 percent, and brewing economic, political, and social crises that have even called into question the republic’s founding principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. All this leaves Macron, the golden boy, consistently slipping in polls, despite having no significant political opposition, and despite the fact that France handled the pandemic extremely competently, certainly compared to some other G7 countries. His strength—the verticality and centrality of authority in France, where the presidency is all-powerful—has become his greatest liability. Macron has become the embodiment of the state, and therefore the direct target of the country’s political and cultural discontent, disappointment, and confusion—currents that he, a brilliant technocrat known for his arrogance, imperiousness, and emotional detachment, may be ill-suited to handle.
Macron is an anomaly without a traditional political base. In 2016 he broke away from the Socialist Party, in which he had been finance minister under President François Hollande, to form his own party, La République en Marche; he came to power unexpectedly after the campaign of his center-right Republican rival collapsed in a scandal, over misuse of government funds, although Macron handily defeated the far-right Marine Le Pen in the final contest. Today, the Republican and center-left Socialist Parties are weaker than ever before, and Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front) and far-left France Unbowed (La France Insoumise) parties are also weak, which means that Macron’s true opposition remains the street, and the street is volatile.
With the arrival of the virus Macron effectively reversed the platform on which he was elected: “reform,” which in the abstract meant making France more economically competitive and dynamic, and in the concrete meant pruning the state through budget and pension cuts and changing labor laws to make it easier for businesses to hire and fire—projects that had taken up three years of political capital. Within days he pivoted to invest billions of euros in an effort to prevent mass unemployment and shore up the national health care system. Three quarters of a million French businesses signed up for a part-time unemployment scheme in which the state paid them to retain workers at up to 84 percent of their salaries rather than fire them. France dedicated €230 million to help support bookstores and publishing houses.
The state has kept public cultural institutions afloat, although many are in dire shape; the head of the Paris Opera says it is “on its knees” after canceling so many productions during a season of strikes and now the pandemic. After they were ordered shut, restaurants and cafés had their rents waived and their staffs put on furlough. “We put health concerns above the economy,” Macron said on June 14, in an address to the nation in which he declared the first wave of the crisis over and said the economy and schools could now reopen fully. Protéger was the word he and his ministers kept repeating throughout the weeks of the Covid emergency: the state would protect its citizens. In exchange, the implicit accord went, citizens would have to give up certain liberties, such as leaving the house without filling out a form.
Did the all-powerful French state succeed? Around 30,000 people have died from Covid-19 in France, the third-highest tally in Europe after Britain and Italy. France had 44 deaths per 100,000 people, a lower rate than Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Sweden. The virus hit worst in the Grand Est region, where a large religious meeting in Mulhouse in late February turned out to be a super-spreading event, and in the Île-de-France, where the vast majority of people who died were in the suburbs surrounding Paris, home to a high percentage of immigrants and their descendants. In April, six local elected officials from Seine-Saint Denis, a suburb north of Paris that is the poorest area of France, wrote in an opinion piece in Le Monde that inequality and inadequate health care services were killing its citizens.
But much of France was spared the worst, and hospitals generally weren’t overwhelmed, as had happened in Italy. France even outfitted some of its high-speed trains to transport Covid-19 patients elsewhere from hospitals in the Grand Est, which were over capacity. The government communicated clearly and effectively. Macron made a series of televised addresses, some loftier than others. The director of the health service, Jérôme Salomon, gave an authoritative daily briefing, and the prime minister, Édouard Philippe, held regular press conferences, with updates on the restrictions. A mayor of Le Havre from the center right, Philippe has seen his popularity rise, while Macron’s has been shrinking.* This means that Macron’s greatest potential political rival is his own prime minister. During the pandemic, Philippe’s dark beard developed white patches, which lent the appearance that he was aging before our eyes, burdened by the challenges. Macron appeared to get younger, tanned from long hours of meetings in the Élysée garden.
What seems to weigh most heavily on the national psyche is that France did not fare nearly as well as Germany, which emerged with about one third the French death count, far fewer restrictions on citizens and businesses, a GDP expected to drop around 6 percent compared to 10–13 percent in France, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who trained as a physicist and gave regular press conferences, more trusted and popular than ever. Germany’s federal structure gave its regions much more autonomy over health care and more flexibility in deploying doctors. At the outset of the crisis, Germany had the ability to test 50,000 people a day for Covid-19, compared to 3,000 in France, according to Jean-François Delfraissy, the head of a government-appointed committee of scientists that advised the Élysée to put the country on total lockdown. (Macron soon dropped his rhetoric of “war” on the virus; in Germany, military rhetoric is anathema, and politicians called the virus an occasion for collective action.) The inferiority complex toward Germany is as pervasive today in France as the tremendous mistrust in how the government, embodied by Macron, handled the crisis. If Italians were surprised to discover in the pandemic that they did, in fact, have more of a state than they thought, then the French were distraught to discover that their state, and especially their health care system, which they had been led to believe was the best in the world, were not as robust as they’d thought.
France’s death count from Covid-19 and its economic difficulty have weakened its standing in Europe. But Macron’s collaboration with Merkel has simultaneously strengthened it; they have proposed allowing Europe to mutualize debt, issuing grants and loans to countries hard hit by Covid-19—Italy, with its high debt, high death count, and weak economy, is very much the risk here, but so is France—as a way of making sure they don’t collapse economically, which would put the euro in jeopardy. In his speech on June 14, Macron reiterated his constant calls for a stronger, more united, and “more sovereign” Europe, which could have more leverage over China. With Trump’s trade war, Europe finds itself squeezed between those two powers.
For anyone watching the news out of Italy, the Élysée’s reaction to the virus seemed dangerously slow. On March 6, Macron and his wife, Brigitte, went to the theater and encouraged others to do so. The next day, Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced that he was putting large swaths of Italy’s north under effective lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. For ten days, between March 7 and March 16, when Macron finally put France under home confinement, I sat in Paris glued to the Italian press in an increasing state of agitation and disbelief. Why were French newspapers and public radio stations still talking about the finer points of municipal elections when a tsunami of death was about to land? Why was France even holding the first round of municipal elections on March 15? Just days before finally issuing the lockdown order, Macron and Philippe had sent a mixed message: stay at home but go vote. In fairness, public opinion had not yet grasped how deadly the virus was, and if Macron, who was already despised for his imperiousness, had postponed the elections, it would have been interpreted as subverting the democratic process, an accusation from which he might never recover.
There were other failures in France’s response to Covid-19. For years it had been outsourcing the production of medical supplies and equipment, leaving it devastatingly ill-prepared. Early on it became clear that the country had a huge shortage of masks. The government wavered over whether to require citizens to wear them. In March the government spokeswoman, Sibeth Ndiaye, said that masks “weren’t necessary unless you’re sick.” Her remarks came at a time of global confusion over their efficacy and after a World Health Organization official had said that they “can give a false sense of protection for healthy people.” But she was harshly criticized, especially after it emerged that France’s national stockpiles of masks had dropped to 150 million from 1.7 billion in recent years, under different administrations. From the beginning of the lockdown until it lifted in mid-May, the government took over the distribution of surgical masks and reserved them for medical professionals, not regular citizens. By that point, France was able to mobilize domestic production as well as to import—from China—enough masks to urge people to wear them and to require them on public transportation.
In a televised address in April, Macron acknowledged directly that there had been a shortage of masks and a host of logistical problems, but he said the government was aware of them and doing its best to address the problems. Still, the notion of a great mensonge about masks—a widespread perception that the government said they weren’t necessary simply because it didn’t have enough—lingers in the public imagination. Macron, Philippe, and Health Minister Olivier Véran took the heat for these flip-flops, but not as much as Ndiaye did. After French schools shut down nationwide, she also offended France’s teachers when she said that no one was asking them them to pick strawberries while the schools were closed and they weren’t working, even though many were working just as hard from home.
The pandemic revealed structural flaws in the country’s vaunted health care system. Between 1993 and 2018, France eliminated 100,000 hospital beds, most of them in general medicine, surgery, and obstetrics. Last year, before the pandemic hit, doctors and nurses—and the staffs of 300 of France’s 474 emergency rooms—joined in weeks of general strikes to protest Macron’s cuts to the health care system as well as to their pensions, part of his efforts to trim back the state. (That pension reform and all Macron’s previous reforms were put on hold when the pandemic hit.) But nearly 50 percent of Covid-19 deaths in France—some 15,000—were elderly people in nursing homes. That corresponds to similar trends elsewhere, including the United States, but is nevertheless a stunning loss, especially for a state that prides itself on taking care of its citizens, cradle to grave. Prosecutors in Paris have opened a vast investigation into the actions of government officials on charges of involuntary homicide and not helping people in need, after families of the dead filed suit. (The widow of one doctor treating Covid-19 patients said her husband wouldn’t have died of it himself had he been given proper protective equipment.) A committee in France’s National Assembly will also examine the government’s response to the crisis, especially the conditions in nursing homes, where health care workers have spoken of shortages of protective equipment and testing.
France’s lockdown was the most severe in the West after Italy’s, but France was ahead of many of its European counterparts in reopening schools starting in mid-May, albeit with greatly reduced capacity, so as to accommodate greater social distancing among pupils. (Italy and Spain didn’t reopen schools this academic year but will likely do so this fall; German schools have barely reopened.) In June France opened nursery, elementary, and middle schools fully for the last two weeks of the school year, but high schools remained closed. For the first time since the upheavals of 1968, students in their final year of high school didn’t have to take a written exam for their Baccalauréat. As in many countries, having schools closed has dealt a major blow to families, especially lower-income families, whose children don’t always have access to online learning. In reopening the schools, the government said it was acting in the name of equal access to education, but it was also allowing parents to go back to work.
There are other concerns about equality. Reports of domestic violence went up more than 30 percent, and abortion clinics became far more difficult to access. Marlène Sciappa, the government’s media-savvy undersecretary of state for gender equality, commissioned a survey that found that women were bearing the brunt of the crisis, taking care of their families and households while also often working remotely. “We’ve constantly read articles advising us to take advantage of the lockdown to take up yoga or reread La Pléiade,” she said, “but the majority of women obviously don’t have the time, because they’re busy with work for which they aren’t compensated.” France has some of Europe’s best social services for families, including public nurseries and mandatory pre-kindergarten starting at age three, which helps its female employment levels (68 percent compared to 53 percent in Italy and 80 percent in Sweden), but there are concerns that the pandemic might endanger that. If French schools aren’t fully operational—and especially if families become reluctant to risk the lives of their aging relatives in nursing homes—the burden of taking care of children and the elderly will likely fall to women. Sophie Binet, the head of gender equality at the Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s most militant labor union, recently told me she feared “a violent return of women to the home.”
For all the debate about whether the French state did enough to protect citizens, there is a counterdebate about whether it intruded too far into people’s personal lives. The government has created an app, StopCovid, to help with contact tracing by alerting people if they’ve been near someone who’s tested positive. It is not yet in wide use and has been somewhat controversial; some critics have concerns that it will not only violate citizens’ privacy but give Big Tech an outsized place in the functions of the state. (France chose not to use Google and Apple’s standards for the app.) A recent issue of Le Point, a conservative weekly magazine, featured a picture of Macron on its cover with the headline “Sleep Well, Little Ones,” and argued that he had been infantilizing the French. Causeur, a right-wing weekly, dismissed mask-wearing as “neurotic.” (Now that the mask shortage has been for the most part resolved, people wear them in France, and there isn’t the right–left divide on the issue that has emerged in the US.)
There were also generational divides. Alain Minc, an adviser to Macron, said he had been utterly shocked when the “false democracy” of the government’s scientific council floated an idea that people over sixty-five should stay inside for their own safety. Pascal Bruckner, the seventy-one-year-old ’68er-turned–cultural conservative—critic of Greta Thunberg, defender of Woody Allen, and of French laïcité against what he sees as encroaching militant Islam—also spoke out against ageism. “It’s unconstitutional and violates the principle of equality,” he told Le Figaro, adding that he wouldn’t submit to ageism or meriting a nursing home.
Other French public intellectuals and writers offered thoughts. In a “confinement diary” in Le Monde, the novelist Leila Slimani wrote of how the camelias were blooming in the garden of her country house, and how as a novelist she loved the quiet and solitude. The piece prompted vicious blowback, and she was seen as tone deaf. (She and many other privileged Parisians spent the lockdown in their country homes.)1 In Télérama, the cultural weekly magazine, the philosopher and psychoanalyst Cynthia Fleury wrote of
the current paradox: that if we now find ourselves ultra-limited, confined, captives, it is because of neoliberal ideology that advocates a form of capitalism that is increasingly deregulated, predatory, draining, and whose only “form of life” is the absence of limits.
Michel Houellebecq sent some remarks to French radio. “I don’t believe for a half-second in declarations like ‘Nothing will be the way it was before,’” he wrote. “We won’t wake up after the confinement in a new world; it will be the same, just a bit worse.” Bernard-Henri Lévy emerged from a lockdown spent in his Paris hôtel particulier and released a new book, Ce Virus Qui Rend Fou (The Virus That Makes Us Crazy), in which he described his shock at the “docility” with which the French submitted to the confinement measures. A great collective fear has taken hold in the West, he wrote, which will affect human behavior and politics for some time to come.
Bruno Latour, the preeminent French philosopher of science and technology, said he also was surprised by the “docility” with which citizens accepted the lockdown. “Civil society would not accept it” if the state “limited airplane travel or the sale of pesticides or left oil in the ground,” he told Madame Figaro. If governments listed the number of species that were going extinct the way they listed the dead from Covid-19, then “the tragedy of the collapse of biodiversity” would no longer be abstract, he said. Latour was also stunned by how major countries had shut down their economies practically overnight: “What could have led to such a unanimity of decisions among the intellectual, economic, and political elites? This existential situation poses a societal enigma as much as a medical one.”
These thinkers increasingly feel tied to a cultural establishment that is on the way out. What will replace it is unclear. Perhaps the most vivid figure to emerge from France during the pandemic is Dr. Didier Raoult, the head of a medical clinic in Marseille whose touting of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 caught the attention of Trump. Raoult developed a cult following in France, communicating on YouTube and other social networks, as well as appearing on the cover of Paris Match during the lockdown. He has cast himself as an outsider fighting the Paris medical establishment and has repeatedly suggested that people who question his research into hydroxychloroquine have conflicts of interest with Big Pharma. Yet he also came to people’s aid. For weeks, there were hours-long lines for Covid-19 tests at his clinic, especially before France’s testing capacity increased.
Véran, the French health minister, has called Raoult’s work “not very responsible,” and his critics had seriously questioned his claims, but on April 9 Macron paid Raoult a surprise visit in Marseille. “He’s a great scientist, and I’m fascinated by what he says and what he explains,” Macron told French radio. The visit was private, and Macron neither endorsed nor disavowed Raoult’s claims about hydroxychloroquine. Unnamed sources told Le Monde that the president wanted to show that scientific research wasn’t right-wing or left-wing, while Libération reported that his visit was to ensure that if Raoult were co-opted, it would be by the president, not a political rival. But if the visit was aimed at delegitimizing Raoult’s standing as an anti-establishment figure, it didn’t entirely work. He still draws followers.
Raoult captures a free-floating anti-system anger and resentment that found its most volatile expression in France in the Yellow Vest protests that began in the fall of 2018, at first against a fuel tax, and later swelled to encompass a range of laments, mostly about cuts to state services, especially in rural areas and small towns, in spite of high taxes, and salaries that no longer kept pace with the cost of living. The movement had begun to die down a year before the pandemic, after Macron embarked on the Grand Débat, a series of town hall meetings he conducted across France in the first months of 2019, asking citizens and elected officials about their concerns, in an effort to diffuse tensions after street protests that had turned violent (and also came to have some ugly anti-Semitic overtones). Macron was expected to announce his conclusions from the Grand Débat in a televised address on April 15, 2019. He would pledge not to close more hospitals or schools until the end of his term in 2022, and to reduce the number of deputies in the National Assembly, “to satisfy those who complained about the bloated size of the governing class,” William Drozdiak recounts in his illuminating new book, The Last President of Europe, based on a series of interviews with Macron.2 (Macron’s speech never aired: that evening, Notre-Dame caught fire.)
The Yellow Vests protesters were by and large white, many from rural areas, and although residents of the immigrant-heavy suburbs found common cause with them, they didn’t generally participate in the demonstrations. Then in early June of this year, just as the country was stirring back to life after the lockdown, another movement gained momentum in France, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. Tens of thousands of people held demonstrations against police brutality in France under the banner of Justice for Adama, after Adama Traoré, a twenty-four-year-old black Frenchman who died in police custody outside Paris in 2016. (Traoré’s case is complex; contradictory medical reports have failed to establish a clear cause of death, and there was no video, as in the case of George Floyd; for years Traoré’s sister, Assa, has been leading the effort to bring the truth to light.)
The Justice for Adama protests are about police brutality, but they’re also a way for French citizens of color to assert themselves, to call attention to the gap between universalist ideals and their lived reality. In France, the discussion about social mobility has historically been more centered on class than on race, but it has started to shift under the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The recent marches didn’t have a particular political affiliation, although Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the head of the France Unbowed party, whose platform merges environmentalism with anticapitalism, was the most prominent politician to join one in Paris. There’s some overlap between the Yellow Vest and Justice for Adama demonstrations in their notion of a state that is repressive and elitist and in their experience of police brutality during protests; if they unite, in a moment of economic instability, that would mark a new chapter in French protest. In any case, both movements confirm that Macron’s true opposition remains the street.
The government’s response to the Justice for Adama protesters has put Macron in a tight spot. After the first big rally on June 2, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, who oversees the police, said that France had no tolerance for racism, would ban chokeholds, and would punish any officer guilty of “proven suspicions of racism”—an ambiguous formulation. This angered police, who have had to keep order during the constant protests that have marked Macron’s presidency, some of which have turned violent, and some of which were against pension cuts that would also affect their own pensions. Then they had to enforce the lockdown. They accused the government of hanging them out to dry and held a protest of their own, blocking traffic around the Place de la Concorde and throwing down their handcuffs outside precincts across France in a symbolic gesture.
The Justice for Adama protests and the standoff between the police and Castaner roused Marion Maréchal, the niece of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally, to stir after a long silence. “I would refuse to put one knee on the ground like the interior minister, Mr. Castaner, would like,” Maréchal, a politician herself whose supporters see her as the great hope of the French far right, said in a six-minute video she posted to her Facebook account on June 10, which has been viewed more than 2.8 million times. The “antiracist” groups calling on public officials to kneel in respect for black victims of police violence don’t want respect, “they want humiliation, or submission,” she said. “They not only ask us to get down on one knee, but to deny the memory of our ancestors and to spit on our history.” Her aunt, who lost the 2017 presidential election to Macron, has spoken out only occasionally during the pandemic, including to express her approval that France had closed its borders.
Four days after Maréchal’s video, Macron addressed the nation again. He declared the first wave of the pandemic over and said that businesses could get back to normal, since the number of infections had dropped to a more manageable level. He also called for a “productive pact” to help get the French economy moving and more green investment. Alert to the hatred toward the Paris elites, he said, “let us place more confidence” in citizens, businesses, unions, and local collectives, in order to understand their concerns. (His many critics said the speech was too self-congratulatory and did not address the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.) Macron didn’t speak directly about the police or the Justice for Adama demonstrations, but he said that the country would not fall into “communitarianism,” the American-style identity politics that is anathema to France’s ideal of universalism. During a week in which Confederate and colonialist statues were toppling across the United States, Britain, and Belgium, Macron declared, “The republic will not…take down any statues.” And yet, he said, “we need to look at our history more lucidly, together, especially our relationship to Africa.” The day before he spoke, Ndiaye, the government spokeswoman, who came to France from Senegal at age fifteen and is the first person of color in her position, published an opinion piece in Le Monde calling for France to drop its taboos about gathering statistics on race.
In Paris, traffic is back to normal, and cafés and restaurants have reopened. On public radio we are still told to observe the gestes barrières, or barrier gestures—no shaking hands, no greeting with la bise on both cheeks—and to évitez les embrassades, avoid embraces. Alerts that once told us to leave home only for urgent needs, then reminded us that “nine out of ten people who die of Covid are over sixty-five,” have now given way to a simple message: “The virus is still here, and it is dangerous.” The borders inside Europe just reopened, and Europe’s external Schengen borders will likely reopen in July. France will have its summer holidays, a national right. But the economic carnage is dramatic. France has always been a realm of Cartesian rationality, of the abstract. This pandemic has reminded us that we are bodies, not just minds. Under a president who wants citizens to take more responsibility for their own lives, jobs, and destinies, France remains one of the world’s greatest battlegrounds between theory and practice, a living experiment in what citizens can expect from their state, and what the state can expect from them.
—June 24, 2020
After this article went to press, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe was elected mayor of Le Havre, a post he had held before resigning to join Macron’s government in 2017, and stepped down as prime minister at Macron’s request, part of a government reshuffle precipitated by the pandemic. Macron replaced him with Jean Castex, a technocrat with no political profile who oversaw France’s reopening. The original article also included slightly different English translations of remarks by Sibeth Ndiaye and Bruno Latour. The text above has been amended for clarity. ↩
The Last President of Europe: Emmanuel Macron’s Race to Revive France and Save the World (PublicAffairs, 2020). ↩